Saturday, July 29, 2017

Review--Jack of Shadows, by Roger Zelazny

I rarely read and am leery of reviewing anything that I consider to be “modern.” The style of prose itself turns me away, as well as a frequent sense of plotlessness; the works are feeble and desultory, all of them. I cannot quite say during which point in time this change occurs, there is no hard-and-fast date I can fix to separate “modern” fiction from the “real thing”, but if I had to choose, I would hazard a guess at the sixties or thereabouts. This is not to say that there might not have been earlier works in this mold; I am not suggesting that the change came about suddenly. But I feel safe in my assumption that the old prose styles were nearly eradicated (at least in genre fiction) by the sixties, and I lower my expectations accordingly.

So it is with some trepidation that I prepare to review Roger Zelazny's Jack of Shadows, published in '71. Zelazney has been spoken well of in PulpRev circles, and I am conscious that criticisms of the work based on such a nebulous and indefinable idea, which may merely be my own very personal eccentricity of taste, might be contrary to the aesthetics of the Pulprev. Nevertheless, here we go!

It is not my first outing with Mr. Zelazny's work. I went through the Amber series recently, all ten books of it. I found them deeply flawed but mildly enjoyable, and I wanted to see how the author would do with a smaller, more self-contained story. My choice was Jack.

The prose feels midway between new and old styles. It reads like, if not contemporary, at least semi-contemporary work. It seems rather like the spare, somewhat sterile prose of today, coupled with the vocabulary of yesterday.

The story is thus: on a tidelocked world, where half is eternal day and half eternal night, magic rules the night and technology rules the day. The darkside is a realm of swords and sorcery, ruled by powerful beings who have many lives but no souls; the lightside a contemporary society of mortal men. A magic shield protects the one side from the cold, and a mechanical shield protects the other from the heat. The world is supposedly controlled by a mighty machine at its core.

Right off the starting line the opening had me raising an eyebrow and checking out my brain. Jack gets captured. Jack is a legendary magical thief, with the power to work all sorts of magic whenever he is in shadows. He can escape from any prison, passing though shadows from place to place like a spirit. He is very powerful, yet he gets easily taken by the arena security at a great competition when he goes to steal the magical prize. This stunning capture is seemingly effected by two bystanders recognizing him while he's standing around looking at the jewel and reporting him. You think: “Surely this is all part of his plan; surely he isn't this stupid!”

The two bystanders who recognized him taunt him. It seems they are in the employ of Jack's nemesis, the Lord of Bats (Zelazny does some pretty cool names on occasion), and are apparently the Lord's way of laying a trap for Jack. Now you are thinking: “That's it? That was his grand plan? Send some lackeys to point at him and say, “Arrest that man?”

...Well...I have to grudgingly admit that once everything is explained, it makes sense. It is conceivable that Jack came to the games unaware that any other Darkside Power knew he was in attendance. His task was to steal the prize, and therefore prove himself worthy to wed Evene, the daughter of the Colonel Who Never Died. However it seems that the Colonel afterwards decided that he would rather his daughter marry the powerful sorcerer the Lord of Bats, instead of Jack, and so he betrayed Jack's mission to said Lord, who then sent his men to tip off the games-master to Jack's presence, therefore causing his arrest and subsequent execution.

It sounds all well and good on paper, but Zelazny hurts himself by playing his cards so close to his chest. The initial impression that I received was of Jack bumbling into some random bystanders who get him caught, and swearing bloody vengeance on all of them for so catching him, and this was a deep seated impression by the time the author deigned to start explaining the circumstances. Even after all the explanations have trickled in (the last one coming in the last third of the book) they are so lightly touched upon that the reader must work to construct unaided a scenario in which these events have the weight which they were clearly intended to have.

Jack has now been executed. Awakening several years later in a wasteland about the dark pole, where all darkside beings are reborn after death, and with nothing but an odd stone in his hand, he sets out across the waste, through the hostile territories of rival Lords. Along the way he has three random encounters which the cover blurb appears to think are adventures. First, a vampire tries to drink from him, and he drains her dry in response. Secondly, a sentient rock mind-controls him into approaching and touching it, and begins to suck out his life force, but by managing to strike a light, Jack gets himself some shadows to conjure in, and drains the rock dry as well.

Lastly he meets an old witch, who turns out to have been a lover of his, long ago, in one of his previous lives. She chides him for not coming back for her, as he promised. Now she is an old woman, and it is too late. Jack is regretful, says he did go back, but by that time her village was different, and no one knew her any more. Time, it seems, just doesn't factor into your perception of the world when you can live many lifetimes. He offers her a place in his home when his triumph is complete, but she turns him down.

Jack tries to sneak across the land of the Lord of Bats himself, hoping to get safely to the twilight border. He is captured and taken to the fortress High Dudgeon (see, Zelazny could do some really cool names), where he is imprisoned in a gem, the Lord of Bats promising that he will be confined until he goes mad. Evene appears to Jack and tells him that when he did not return, her father had her marry the Lord of Bats instead, and that she truly loves her new husband. Jack pretends to believe it an illusion or trick, and plots his escape.

The one thing that the powers of darkness have agreed on, is that each one must use his powers at a certain ordained season to refresh the shield, lest the surface freeze. Jack uses his powers to do the unthinkable, faking his name on the record books and breaking darkside compact. Thus he is set free to perform his magic on the shield, but spirits himself away instead.

He transports himself to a twilit mountaintop, where a great being named Morningstar is bound, his body attached to the mountain--bound and compelled never to leave until the sunrise comes. Jack thinks of Morningstar as his “only friend,” and he shares his plans with the Titan.

Jack then goes to the light side, and blends in with humans, using their technology to track down a mystical treasure called “The Key that Was Lost,” which will grant him near omnipotence. After a time skip of five years, we pick up with him narrowly escaping back into the twilight after he is outed as a darkborn, fleeing with calculations which he is not sure hold the data that he needs.

Jack of Shadows is quite an amoral protagonist, and during his quest for vengeance, the author goes out of his way to let us know that Jack is a womanizer, and that he cares not a fig for the potential broken hearts he leaves behind; that he sees no reason not to do whatever he pleases with the omnipotent power which he seeks; and that he gloats in anticipation of the tortures and mutilations which he plans for his foes. He happily lets Quilian, the mortal who suspected his true identity be killed while he flees.

So Jack isn't a good guy. I've read stories with amoral leads before and enjoyed them. In my mind, you need one of two things to make a protagonist cut from—shall we say—imperfect cloth sympathetic: you must either have him adhere to a certain standard of honor and justice, even if it is a warped one (such as in Captain Blood), or make him live in a world where the vices he practices and the mindset he carries are the norm, making him perhaps better, and certainly not worse than could be expected in the society wherein he exists (such as in The Three Musketeers, The Strolling Saint), or some mixture of both (Hornblower, The White Company). Jack does something else, but something just as good, or perhaps better.

My expectations had been dropping rapidly for the first thee quarters of the book, and then the story transitioning Jack from amoral antihero to full-fledged villain as his plan comes together. When next we see him, he has acquired the power he sought. He confronts the Lord of Bats and his minions and executes his gruesome revenge to the fullest, magically brainwashes the woman who rejected him into becoming his bride, takes over all of the darkside as a cruel tyrant, and with his reign of terror solidly in place, begins his happily ever after.

This really threw me. My idea of the story was turned on its head. I doubted that there could even be a happy ending for Jack, and started to wonder if Jack of Shadows was a tragedy, and he was the tragic villain. Then as the story went on, I saw hope of redemption. Zelazny, it seemed, could surprise me after all.

Now two things happen, the first: the old witch comes back to see him again, bringing him the stone he was reborn with and had left behind at the pole. She tells him it is his soul, and asks him to take it, hoping that it will soften his hard heart. He refuses, crushes the stone and drives away the spirit within it, but from this point forth his soul follows and frequently pesters him to accept a reunion. Once again he tries to offer the old woman a home, and once again she turns him down.

The second thing that happens: Some of the other dark Powers come to him and declare that they will not serve a tyrant, and that none of them will stir to protect the shields. They would rather die in polar night than live under his tyranny. Jack asks Morningstar for advice, and at his friend's behest, delves deep into the core of the earth to the Great Machine, which he destroys. On the surface the lands are thrown into chaos, earthquakes and floods and destruction abound. The earth is starting to turn in a new fashion, and now there will be normal day and night, with no need for shields. However, with the coming of the day to his lands, Jack's powers fail. Evene, whom he held in concubinage regains her sense of self, and falls from the battlement while trying to kill him. His magical fortress collapses. At the last moment he softens and admits his soul into his heart, and from the crumbling walls he sees the beauty of the world the first time. With that see sees his own evil, and falling, concludes:

“For the whole world. I apologize. I love you[...]It is only fitting[...]It is only fitting. There is no escape. When the earth is purged by winds and fires and waters, and the evil things are destroyed or washed away, it is only fitting that the last and greatest of them all be not omitted.”

At the last moment, he looks up and sees Morningstar, free at last, diving on his great wings to catch him.

It's a fantastic ending--that I will wholeheartedly grant. The last third of the book is full of tension and drama, and has somewhat of weight to it.

But here is my beef with the book. The ending is the only part that even partially lives up to its potential. The story itself as it is presented is shallow—a shallow, mildly entertaining time killer. Not a story you'd ever care enough to revisit.

The plot then, as I said, has potential. My issue is with the story: how little of it there is! Despite all that happens, I was left with the a strong feeling that there were less than a dozen important scenes or so. I'm sure this was not the case, but it felt as if this were the case. Given the proper time and attention, it could have been so much more. The skeleton of an excellent redemption plot is there, and a world which could have been filled with atmosphere, but it doesn't come together until the very end. The rest of the story is empty of drama, empty of weight, empty of action.

Jack searching for The “Key that Was Lost,” posing as a professor for five years to get access to a university computer, through which he runs calculations which will discover to him the secret of the Key? All glossed over. Jack finding the Key? It happens off-screen (a stylistic choice on the author's part: we see Jack's newfound power first through the eyes of his victims), and it is never given enough time or attention afterwards to give us the feeling that he struggled or that he really accomplished something. The confrontation with the the Lord of Bats, and his death at the Jack's hands happens off-screen. Their magic duel, what we do see of it, is not very thrilling. The rest of the "adventures”—those five or six random-encounters that might or might not fill a mere two chapters of Tolkien, are trivial. Description? There is almost none, though what there is could be worse. There are unfulfilled mysteries. During his visit to the earth's core, Jack encounters a creature who may have had some relation to Morningstar. This opens some exciting questions at the ending as to Morningstar's true intentions, but nothing definite ever comes of this. Jack reminisces, and we are told that he hated Quilian, with no explanation as to why. When Jack reaches the Machine, he meets an old man tending to it. He kills the fellow so that he can destroy the machine. Why there is an apparently ordinary man at the center of the earth, who knows.

You can read Jack of Shadows if this sounds interesting to you, and the ending is good enough to make it stick with you. It's not bad, but it is shallow. Shallow and full of wasted potential. The whole story amounts, more or less, to a handful of random encounters and a revenge quest which consists of the protagonist going off somewhere and doing some stuff and coming back with everything accomplished. Being kept at a distance from Jack was not bad in itself, but it was not executed in a satisfying manner. Look to the famous The Count of Monte Cristo for a revenge tale that uses these tricks better (though it, too, has serious flaws, of quite the opposite sort). Jack is well conceived, but too lightly told. It might have made a better movie or miniseries than a book.


  1. Interesting. I first read this when it came out, and didn't care much for it for many of the reasons you give above. I read it again some years later, but time didn't improve it.

    May I recommend two other books by Zelazny? Most people remember him now for his Amber books, but I would say that Lord of Light and This Immortal should be read by anyone who wants to see what he was capable of.

    Thanks for the review.

  2. Thank you for reviewing Jack of Shadows. I have it in my library, but yet to read it. There are some really cool concepts there. Rather than being dissuaded from reading it after your critical review, I actually want to move it up in my reading queue. Imagine making this book into the story it should have been, and then write it. Sounds like quite a worthy exercise for a PulpRev author!

  3. Misspelling the author's name in your headline starts things off on the wrong foot.

    1. Apologies. A quick online search revealed my mistake and think I have now corrected it in both the headline and the body text.

  4. Yeah, misspelling the name bugged me just as much as if you’d written something about Robert E. Noward.

    There’s good pulp and bad pulp just as there’s good Zelazny fiction and bad Zelazny fiction. As always, it comes down to taste and preferences, but I was a little dismayed that you so casually lumped discussion of the original Amber series in with its sequel, which is rather like dismissing the original Star Trek along with the Next Generation. In both instances, both came from their original creators, but they’re otherwise different in intention and effect. In the first Amber series you’re looking at a work that you’ve identified correctly as having some old and some new without seeming to appreciate how ground breaking that was. And I can’t be sure, but you don’t seem to have enjoyed or noticed the wildly imaginative world building.

    I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s and Zelazny was one of a handful of the writers back then that my friends and I would seek out when he released a new book. He didn’t always deliver, but we knew there’d be some good stuff even in ones we found wanting. He didn’t have long tedious digressions – a Zelazny book was full of action, adventure, and fantastic backdrops. His characters weren’t wooden, they were complex. And usually his plot spooled out in a sophisticated and even wondrous way.

    Zelazny’s work is a combination of the older pulp in its love of adventure, some of the hardboiled writing of the ‘40s and ‘50s, and some of Zelazny’s contemporary social mores. The original Amber reads a little like a Raymond Chandler detective novel superimposed over a fantasy adventure.

    I have to confess that I’m not completely sure what you’re looking for in pulp. When I found it I loved the clear divide between good and bad, driving, headlong pace, and the wild world-building, but I hated cardboard characters, stereotypes and frying pan to fire plotting. Not all pulp had the good stuff, and not all pulp had the bad stuff, but more pulp had bad than good. True greatness in pulp writing is as rare as it is in ANY OTHER kind of writing. I’ll never forget finding Harold Lamb and thinking that wow, after him there would be all this other great historical fiction pulp to go read… but it turned out that no, there are different levels of quality and few if any historical fiction writers could hit it as regularly.

    Any modern pulp movement needs to look honestly at both the strengths AND the weaknesses of original pulp stories, and try to bring the strengths forward into new fiction while leaving the weaknesses behind. I love Zelazny’s work in part because I think he was trying to do just that – take the stuff he loved from the old and strengthen it with deeper characters and more complex situations. He didn’t always succeed, but few of us ever do.

    Let me add, finally, that while I have great sympathy for a movement that likes a lot of the same stuff I like, I think it will be far more successful if it strives for inclusion rather than exclusion. Remember that writers like Zelazny grew up reading and loving the pulps and paperbacks you celebrate. They were trying to bring some of those same thrills for their contemporary audience.

    1. I expected a bit of this reaction. Zelazny is one of PulpRev's few contemporary darlings, and here I am criticizing him.

      1. When I described Zelazny as "some of the old, and some of the new" I was talking about style only. To me, "some old, some new" is better than "wholly new" but worse than "entirely old." And no, I am quite aware that the second amber series is a mess that should never have existed. It rather tainted the preceding series which had its own unsatisfactory ending.

      2. You say: "...Zelazny book was full of action, adventure, and fantastic backdrops. His characters weren’t wooden, they were complex. And usually his plot spooled out in a sophisticated and even wondrous way."

      My review of Jack is critical mainly because I don't find those elements to be present in a satisfactory way. I'll only really agree with you on the last point; his plots were twisting, shifting, intriguing and creative.

      3. This is not a review of Zelazny as an author; this is not a review of Amber. Frankly, I don't think Zelazny is pulp, really, and I had issues with the Amber series, but not the issues I had with Jack.

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    1. It’s not at all that you criticized him – I do that myself. I freely admit that the final book in the first Amber series is massively stretched from the longish short story it probably should have been, and I’ll more freely admit that there’s not that much Zelazny on my shelf anymore. What troubled me was the sense that you were sort of dismissive of Zelazny, but perhaps I read too much into the brief mention of Amber that you wrote in your preamble prior to the discussion of Jack of Shadows.

      When I took a jotted list from Appendix N to the bookstore, library, and used bookstore in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the only authors I could find were Leiber, Zelazny, and Moorcock – although not the recommended Moorcock. We already had Tolkien lying around the house, and I bounced off of that at first. But Swords Against Death and Amber blew my mind; they were my gateway drug to the world of heroic fiction and sword-and-sorcery.

      I’m following the discussions of a pulp revival with great interest because it seems to dovetail a lot with what some of us have been trying to do for years with sword-and-sorcery, which was to hone it and give it a new edge. Chris Hocking, William King, Clint Werner and some other folks along with me were talking about that during the years I was involved with Flashing Swords and Black Gate. In some ways it seems like our interests overlap profoundly with those of this movement, but in other ways it feels like we have our borders in different places.

      When you write that Roger Zelazny doesn’t feel like pulp, I think you’re right in that he doesn’t feel much like The Shadow, or E.E. Doc Smith. But to me it’s more important if the author took root in the same rich soil and delivered some great storytelling thrills.

      So what does the pulp revival search for? What defines it? Is there a manifesto of some kind?

      If you’re interested, here’s what we cooked up (my God, I’m getting old) back in 2008 on the old Black Gate forum page when we were discussing a new way to craft sword-and-sorcery. I’d be very interested to hear how it lines up with the goals/outlook of the new pulp movement.

      I’ve since updated my definition of sword-and-sorcery, here, which might make a better starting point to ensure we’re starting from the same standard of reference as to what we mean when talking about sword-and-sorcery.

    2. The only mention I made of Amber was to say that they were deeply flawed but mildly enjoyable. Perhaps you read into it a bit, or perhaps a bit of my discontent bled through in my words. I think that that definition applies much more to the second series than the first. The first was solid in many ways, but had such a weak ending it left me eager to press on; I was counting on the second series to fix the weaknesses of the first (I was obviously going in blind) and it let me down so hard it made the whole series harder to take seriously.

    3. Also...

      Yeah, I dismissed the Amber series--dismissed but didn't diss! I do have issues with the series, but this review was not the place for them.

      I wasn't reviewing the Amber series. I criticized Jack of Shadows because it wasn't all that great.

      Now as to a "Pulp Manifesto" you might wish to take that up the senior members of the movement. I'm not sure myself that we even want such a thing, since one of our principles is not putting things in genre boxes.

      This article might do the job of explaining who we are:

    4. Howard Jones,

      PulpRev started out of two distinct sources. One was Jeffro Johnson's survey of the Appendix N literary inspirations for Dungeons and Dragons, the other was "Cirsova's" dissatisfaction with the fiction of both sides of the Hugo Awards dust-up, which led to him publishing his own periodical of heroic fantasy short fiction. A bunch of us found that the older pulps and the Cirsova fantasies to be more satisfying than the current tradpub fiction, so we started to devour the pulps as inspiration for new works.

      A lot of this enthusiasm is still new-born. While a couple of us have attempted to distill some guidelines from the pulps, there are few real rules. Unlike newpulp, we don't want to be limited to pulp as a millieu, even if some of us do like pulp-punk or diesel-punk settings and write in that vein. Some of us even turn to the pulp-descendants of New Wave, wuxia/xianxia, and Japanese light novels for inspiration in addition to the classic days of the pulps.

      As for inspirations, the most common among the PulpRev are Burroughs, Merrit, C. L. Moore, R. E. Howard, and Leigh Brackett. But there's a large tapestry of pulp and pulp-descended works out there, so it seems like every month, someone new discovers a new writer who broadens the horizons on what pulp-style can be.

      If you haven't read these already, I'd recommend "Thune's Vision" by Schuyler Hernstrom, Cirsova Magazine, and StoryHack Magazine as examples of what PulpRev and fellow travelers are currently writing.

      I look forward to taking a closer look at your own experiences with sword and sorcery.

    5. Regarding the guidelines in

      I see PulpRev as harmonious with these ideas. We do want to bring some of the writing techniques of the pulps back, and since much of our inspiration is found in Weird Tales, to be honest, most of us have yet to grapple with the problems of the spicies, weird menace, and Yellow Peril. Personally, I'd like to see more of the chinoiserie and japonisme found in those days, but I am more critic than writer. As for not creating pastiches or retreads or ironic reinterpretations, we agree. We wish to take our turn in the Great Conversation instead of mimicking others like a myna bird. The exploration of the exotic and the sense of wonder/fantastic are key parts of what makes pulp pulp. And on poisonous irony, we agree as well. Restoring the sense of the fantastic means restoring the heroic, and to do so requires stepping away from ironic detachment and literary realism's fascination with the mundane.

      As for comedy in sword and sorcery, I much prefer the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser that tried to be published in Wright's Weird Tales than the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser molded by Campbell's vision of fantasy. But on that, I won't dare speak for others.

    6. This is pretty interesting stuff. I’m 49, and my generation of writers grew up playing D&D. My first intro to the fiction I love resulted from an exploration of Appendix N, which broadened out into an exploration of the pulps and then into other older fiction, recently leading me into a deep dive of hardboiled mysteries and detective fiction from the ‘50s. Howard, of course, could be pretty hard-boiled. I’ll never forget saying that on a writing panel at a convention one time and hearing some people snort derisively, because they apparently thought hard-boiled meant only “detective.”

      I enjoy all of the writers you cite as influences, and two of them are in my favorites list, specifically Brackett and Robert E. Howard. I re-read them regularly.

      So it seems like we’re after very similar things in what we want to read, and write. And edit. My short lived tenure during the first 5 issues of the old Flashing Swords e-zine allowed me to put my money where my mouth was, and I got to advocate for a few stories in the final years of Black Gate magazine. I’m involved in a fiction project I’m not allowed to discuss for a few more weeks that takes its inspiration from Appendix N that I’m sure will be right up your alley.

      In one earlier post here on PulpRev there was mention of The Shadow. My expertise fails in the costume pulps, owing to lack of interest in the sub-genre, but I pretty thoroughly explored the historical pulps. And I ended up reading every single one of the Ki-Gor tales from Jungle Stories, which started as Burroughsian pastiche but ended up being better than it should have, despite some pretty ridiculous racism in some early issues.

      As any astute reader knows, people writing in different time periods had different outlooks and shouldn’t be expected to have been writing to please us. We can’t expect a Texan writing in the 1930s to have turned up his nose at using terms everyone around him was using even if we find them offensive today. Just because we enjoy the fiction of the past doesn’t mean we have to carry all of the terms and stereotypical descriptions forward. I’d like to leave them behind along with assumptions about certain cultures as bad/or default good, leave behind talk of “the white man’s burden” and manifest destiny I found in some early historicals. Honestly, I’d like to leave politics at the roadside in any case. It should be about the STORY, not about the politics. Left wing, right wing, no wing – don’t beat your drum, sing me a song about people who stand up to do the right thing even when no one is watching.

    7. With the rediscovery of Lester Dent's Master Formula, the hero pulps are a inspiration for technique--especially since genre writers like Manly Wade Wellman and Michael Moorcock used versions of that formula. I and a few others read through the old Writer's Digests from the time to try for additional insight into what the writers and editors demanded. And about the only real attitude from the 1930s we seek to emulate is Burroughs' assertion that a fiction writer must entertain, or else he is no good.

    8. Dent's formula = very good stuff.

      Burroughs assertion = great stuff.

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  7. It sounds like we have a lot in common. Are you familiar with our sister group the Superversive movement? We at pulprev are building on the that idea that a fiction writer must entertain, or he is no good. The Superversives have built their ethos on virtuous tales--as you say, people doing the right thing when no one is watching. I hope to see the groups move towards each other and merge in the future, because both viewpoints are necessary to what we hope to achieve.

    1. I'll look into them. I don't think that a story has to have virtuous characters to be a good one, as I'm not sure that Fafhrd and the Mouser are always virtuous and I know Elric isn't, and yet the best of those are supremely entertaining. So I think my pendulum swings a little further one way than the other... except that I seem to end up writing about those who are virtuous. I like writing about heroes.

    2. Well, my simple description doesn't really do their ethos justice; they are worth checking out to form your own opinion.